Rachel Newcomb is an anthropologist and the Diane and Michael Maher distinguished professor of teaching and learning at Rollins College. She is the author of “Everyday Life in Global Morocco.”
As protests over corruption, the lack of democracy and unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa this spring drove leaders from power, some observers wondered if the region was experiencing a second Arab Spring. In “The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution,” Peter Hessler offers timely if cautionary lessons for the current protesters. As the New Yorker’s Cairo correspondent from 2011 to 2016, Hessler lived in Egypt when hope for a democratic future was at its apogee, and as his knowledge and experience in the country deepened, he witnessed that optimism turn increasingly to despair and frustration. “The Buried” is his absorbing account of the fallout from the Egyptian revolutions of 2011. It is an eclectic, beautifully written narrative that weaves a portrait of contemporary life in Egypt together with the complex strands of its pharaonic past, finding parallels between seemingly disparate ancient and modern worlds.
Hessler, who has also written about his seven years as a correspondent in China, came to Egypt intending to learn Arabic, study archaeology and experience local culture with his wife and two young daughters. The upheaval after the revolution that displaced Hosni Mubarak from his 30-year presidency contributed to a considerably more exciting existence than Hessler had anticipated. As protests wracked the streets and increasingly turned violent, he reported on them from the street level, embedding himself in a local mosque near Tahrir Square that had been turned into a sort of field hospital and command center for protesters.
Later, he interviewed members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, along with their leader, Mohamed Morsi, stood poised to take the helm after winning Egypt’s first truly democratic elections. In “The Buried,” Hessler captures the post-revolution euphoria and then its aftermath, most notably Morsi’s removal from office at the hands of the army and his subsequent farcical trial. He also recounts the Rabaa massacre of 2013, when the military gunned down more than 800 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood during a protest near a Cairo mosque.
Amid this turmoil, Hessler immerses himself in ancient Egypt, perhaps in part to get away from so much modern-day suffering. During his visits to archaeological sites throughout the country, he seeks the perspectives of archaeologists as well as local governmental figures in the areas nearby. Although at first it may seem unclear why Hessler tacks between the instability of contemporary Egypt and its ancient glories, he makes thoughtful connections between the authoritarian grandeur of the past and the chaos of today. Despite the larger-than-life tombs and monuments that rulers left behind as reminders of their presence, most Egyptians, then and now, were more concerned with basic survival.
Average ancient Egyptians left no written records, although the tombs of pharaohs proudly crow about the prosperity and bounty the rulers provided to the people. But the burial grounds tell a different story. In Amarna, a city built by the ruler Akhenaten (who died in 1336 B.C.), bones indicate that almost no one lived to adulthood and malnutrition was commonplace. In one burial ground close to limestone quarries that would have been used for monument construction, 90 percent of the 135 bodies excavated were under the age of 25. “More than half died between the ages of seven and fifteen. All of them, even the smallest children, show evidence of hard labor.”
Returning to the events of today, Hessler has to rethink his initial assumption that a growing youth population made radical change inevitable. Power, he realizes, does not lie in numbers. Men aged 55 or older make up just 5.7 percent of the population, but they continued to control the country, with seeming disregard for the fate of the young. “In Egypt,” Hessler writes, “youth was cheap.”
Especially moving are Hessler’s tales of the people he befriended during his five years in Egypt. Their experiences offer deeper insights into both the nature of power in Egyptian society and the resilience of individuals making do with a life of electricity blackouts, economic insecurity and the arbitrary violence of the state. Most affecting is the story of Manu, Hessler’s occasional translator, whose marginal identity as a gay man in Cairo frequently subjects him to threats, arrests and beatings, from the police and from other men, and particularly from partners conflicted about their participation in sexual encounters.
Hessler also describes with touching intimacy his friendship with the building’s illiterate garbage collector, Sayyid, and Sayyid’s marital conflicts with his beautiful wife, Wahiba, who manages to assert her power despite the unevenness of gender relationships, through literacy and through her claims to Sayyid’s property in the court system. They live, along with 11 million other residents of Cairo, in the ashwa’iyat, informal and densely populated neighborhoods constructed without permits, their very existence ignored by the central government.
Hessler’s friends are a motley crew, who allow him to observe multiple social classes in Egypt. Even his Arabic lessons provide fodder for cultural understanding, as evidenced by the invented dialogues of his language teacher Rifaat, who is patriotic but also a social critic. Hessler fills his Arabic-language notebook with phrases from Rifaat, such as: “It seems no one in this country knows how to celebrate without a microphone and five loudspeakers,” and “Egypt has been robbed for seven thousand years, but she is still rich.”
Minor characters also offer important insights. In numerous small towns, Hessler observes that Chinese merchants control a bustling lingerie trade, along with other industries, such as the first plastic recycling plant in upper Egypt. Hessler asks the Chinese why their country, another ancient civilization, has achieved economic success where Egypt hasn’t. Recalling their experiences with female Egyptian workers, who exhibit a strong work ethic but tend to quit when they get married, the Chinese entrepreneurs cite gender disparities as a primary reason. A state-developed factory zone that aimed to encourage Chinese investment had resulted in a desert wasteland, “a lost Chinese factory town in the Sahara, where Ozymandian dreams had been foiled by a simple failure to get women out of their homes.”
“The Buried” is an ambitious book, and it delivers on all fronts. It’s equal parts travelogue, history and memoir from a writer with a gift for conveying the humanity of his subjects. One might conclude, after reading this book, that being under the thumb of authoritarian rulers for thousands of years might make it challenging for a democratic movement to be immediately successful, but that doesn’t make Egypt’s return to authoritarianism any less tragic. Hessler highlights with great poignancy the untapped human potential and the cleverness with which Egyptians navigate everyday life in the face of an often brutal authoritarian regime.
By Peter Hessler
Penguin Press. 463 pp. $28